Anne Muxel: “The pandemic is an opportunity for young people to search for meaning”
Is Generation Z inward-looking and not interested in politics? This is a common misconception, says French sociologist and political scientist Anne Muxel. The Director of Research at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CEVIPOF-Sciences Po) – who specializes in the relationship between young people and politics – describes a generation that is committed and resilient, as it lives through the pandemic.
Interview by Laetitia Kaci
How do we define the concept of generations?
From a demographic point of view, a generation is a group of individuals born in the same period, marked by the same social and historical context. This is an objective fact. However, the feeling of belonging to a generation, of shared experience, of common identity, is a more complex reality. Depending on the status of individuals in society, their culture, their experience and their living conditions, this notion of belonging can indeed be questioned.
It is generally an event, or a set of circumstances, that make it possible to identify a common reference point for individuals from different social backgrounds. This presumes the existence of historical and socio-cultural markers in which this age group fits. In this respect, we talk about the May 1968 generation in France, or the generation of the Algerian war [1954-1962].
In your opinion, what are the markers that characterize the generation of under-25s known as Generation Z?
It's not easy to define them. The concept of generation must be handled with care, as it covers a variety of individual experiences and different ways of being part of society.
Youth is a pivotal time in life, when experiences that influence the future, and the subsequent course of an individual, are fixed. In this respect, the experiences gained during this period are foundational. We can therefore legitimately believe that the socio-economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on Generation Z – which some people are already calling the Covid generation. Although all age groups are exposed to these events, this generation will be more affected, because they occurred at the time of their entry into adulthood.
Some say that Gen Z is not politicized. Yet, following the lead of personalities like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, Iris Duquesne in France, or Leah Namugerwa in Uganda, tens of thousands of young people around the world are mobilizing to defend the planet. How do you explain this paradox?
From my point of view, young people are politicized. I would even say they tend to be more mobilized than their elders. They are more interested in social issues such as environmental protection, social justice and human rights.
But their mobilization does not necessarily go through the traditional political channels – whether through elections or the membership of a political party or union. Today, young people prefer other forms of citizen participation, such as demonstrations, petitions, boycotts or collective mobilizations on social networks.
Numerous studies show that their involvement in volunteering has actually increased in recent years, and that their interest in politics has not waned. Therefore the idea that young people are huddled together and indifferent to the general interest is not correct.
Greta Thunberg is a good example. From an individual commitment – which took the form of a school strike – this young girl was able to raise the awareness of young people all over the world, and mobilize them through the climate marches.
Citizens’ movements have always existed. How are they different today?
Many social transformation movements have involved demonstrations and petitions. These are indeed means of expression and democratic practices that have existed for a long time. But this culture of protest, which has spread widely, has gained legitimacy – particularly among young people, who have taken it up in large numbers. Previously, these actions were perceived as protests. Today, they are considered the living heart of democracies, and have spread to other segments of society.
What role does digital media play in mobilizing youth today?
Young people are entering the workforce with these new communication tools that have changed their relationship to civic and political life. In terms of mobilization, these tools have a multiplier effect, and offer young people a wider possibility to express themselves – whether in their personal, professional, cultural, or political life.
Social networks have become conduits for politicization that allow young people to join and defend a cause. These channels can no longer be ignored. In fact, today we see more and more political leaders addressing young people via these networks.
Is it fair to call young people today the sacrificed generation?
This is indeed the image that society gives them. But in the face of the ordeals they are confronted with, they are developing a real capacity for resilience and adaptation.
This young generation is characterized by having grown up in an era marked by multiple crises – whether health, economic or environmental. Moreover, the pandemic has imposed restrictions on young people's freedoms that they were not accustomed to. It has also confronted them brutally with questions of our vulnerability and our finiteness, which can generate anxiety.
But the current health crisis is also an opportunity for them to become more aware, and to search for meaning. This is a generation that will have to find a balance between their personal life, ecological and technological challenges, and scientific progress. It is also a generation that is confident in its ability to overcome these crises. Indeed, the experience that young people are living today could lead to new and promising democratic expectations.
Rebels with a cause, The UNESCO Courier, July-September 2011
Youth 1969, The UNESCO Courier, April 1969
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